The Hippodrome was a gigantic theater which opened in New York in 1905 as a venue for larger than life productions. It was the flamboyant producer/impresario Billy Rose who conceived of a spectacle--part Broadway comedy, part circus, part carnival--to fill the Hippodrome. It was the most expensive production that Broadway had ever seen. He signed composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart to create the score for Jumbo. The story concerned the rivalry of two circus owners whose respective daughter and son fall in love. Jimmy Durante played the role of the agent for the circus elephant, and the show opened with orchestra leader Paul Whiteman riding in on the elephant named Jumbo.
Gloria Grafton as Mickey Considine, the daughter of one of the circus owners, introduced “Little Girl Blue,” one of three popular songs from the show which included “My Romance” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” The show, the last to play the Hippodrome, opened in 1935 and ran for 253 performances. The giant theater, across the street from the Algonquin Hotel, was destroyed and replaced by a garage.
In his book The Song Is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950, William G. Hyland says, “The songs eventually caught on, but not at first because Rose insisted they not be played outside the theater, lest audiences lose interest.” That perhaps explains why Margaret Whiting’s version of “Little Girl Blue” didn’t chart until 1947 and played for only one week, topping at #25. It was left to vocalist/pianist Nina Simone to refocus attention on the song which became a signature tune for her in 1958 when she released her debut album entitled Little Girl Blue.
Even though the show lost money because of its exorbitant cost, it enhanced the reputation of Billy Rose and marked a triumphant return to Broadway for Rodgers and Hart who had not completely enjoyed their stint in Hollywood. The relationship of the two men was continuously strained--Rodgers the sober, reliable one and Hart the neurotic alcoholic who would periodically drop out of sight. However, together they produced a startling number of hit songs which have maintained popularity for generations.
Alec Wilder, in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, describes Rodgers’ melody: “‘Little Girl Blue,’ a verseless song with an added ‘trio’ in ¾ time, has an odd shape, A-A-B/A, in which the A’s are twelve measures long and the B/A only eight. It’s another loving, tender song, containing in its simplicity only one note out of the F major scale, a c sharp. In it Rodgers once more uses the by now familiar device of returning to the same notes. In this case they are three f’s. He moves from the first three to a d, from the second three to a c, and from the third three to a b flat.”
And of Hart’s lyrics Wilder says, “Only a master such as Hart was would have dared to begin a lyric so prosaically and know that its effect would be poetic: ‘Sit there and count your fingers, what can you do?’ And the next time he totally captivates by saying: ‘Sit there and count the raindrops falling on you.’”
Hart was unquestionably a genius with words. Philip Furia analyzes “Little Girl Blue” in his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists. “Hart’s characteristic stance in these lyrics is a tenderly masochistic one, underscored by subtly oppressive rhymes that unfold from the most ordinary turns of phrase.... In a line like ‘No use, old girl,’ Hart uses Rodgers’ octave drop in ‘No use’ to emphasize ‘u’ enough so that it rhymes softly, but insistently, with ‘blue.’ In between those rhymes he deftly strings a sequence of double rhymes:
You may as well surrender,
Your hope is getting slender.
Why won’t somebody send a tender
To cheer a
Little girl blue?
As the double rhymes come more quickly--‘send a/tender’--they underscore the motif of passing time which runs throughout the song.”
William Zinsser in his book Easy to Remember further praises Hart’s lyrics: “Among their many felicities of language, their internal rhymes and repetitions, these lyrics are deeply musical, perfectly tuned to the melodic line.”
In 1962 Hollywood turned Jumbo into a film starring Doris Day, who sang “Little Girl Blue.” It was recorded by several pop singers and by jazz vocalists Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, and Diana Krall. Instrumentally it has been performed by pianists Billy Taylor and Keith Jarrett, guitarists Charlie Byrd and Tal Farlow, and saxophonists Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Rollins, and Stan Getz.